Setting Your Sites

For magazine writers, websites give editors a place to learn about you and instantly view your clips. For corporate writers, potential employers can easily view samples of your work and your résumé. For poets and short-story writers, websites provide a means of connecting with your readers. Likewise, for book authors, websites are a way to stay in touch with readers, talk about your books and inspire readers to read more.

“If you’re trying to make a career of writing, you need a website,” says Harcourt senior editor Andrea Schulz. “People visit them so frequently, and it’s a way to create community for your readers. It’s a way to make sure you’re still in your readers’ heads when there are no more ads or reviews.”

Even if you’re not yet published, it’s never too early to start generating a Web presence, either through a simple website or a blog (or both). Here’s how I did my site (penonfire.com); use this information to help you start thinking about yours.

Audience

Who exactly is your site for? Magazine editors? Potential clients? Readers? Knowing your audience will help you determine many things, including the site’s look and whether you do it yourself or hire a Web designer.

Designer Dave Mosso (spaciousmind.com), who designed my site, says, “From square one, you should design your site based on who’s going to be using it. A site aimed at, say, mystery-novel readers is going to require a different visual and verbal vocabulary than a site for the techno-dance community. Identifying the audience and creating an environment they can relate to is crucial.”

Once I decided that my new site would be for people interested in writing in general, as well as readers of my book Pen on Fire, I got focused. For example, I also have a radio show for writers. But instead of having a separate site for the show, like I did before, I created one simple subpage accessible from the home page of my new site.

Research

Take awhile to study other websites to get at what you want and pay attention to what draws you in or what bugs you. What colors do you respond best to? Do you like author photos on the home page? Simple home pages or busier ones? Visit writers’ sites as well as other types of sites, study every aspect of their sites and make lots of notes so that when you’re ready to design, you’ll have a clear idea of what you want.

Journalist Anita Bartholomew (anitabartholomew.com) spent months researching websites. “I tried to decide why one website kept my interest, while I barely spent a second at another,” she says. “I paid close attention to how different design elements, such as layout, color and typeface, affected my opinion of the company behind the website.” She says she found that she “responded most favorably to sites that drew me in before throwing a bunch of copy at me, so I emulated that on my ‘writing samples’ page. It gives just a paragraph or so of each clip—enough to give a reader the flavor of the full article—and allows readers to click through to the entire piece if they’re intrigued enough to want to read more. I didn’t respond well to websites that offered the services of a single individual but didn’t show the person’s face, so I included a photo. I also didn’t respond well to introductory pages that required me to scroll much. So that went onto my list of what to avoid. By the time I was ready to hire a Web designer, I had the whole thing pretty well laid out in rough form, right down to colors, font type and size.”

Hire someone or do it yourself?

There are advantages to each. If you do it yourself, you’ll save money. If you hire someone, you’ll end up with a more professional-looking site (unless you have great graphic skills).

Hiring a designer I chose to hire a Web designer for my site because (1) I have no interest in designing websites in the future and (2) I thought the learning curve would be a long, serpentine road.

I presented my designer with my ideas, colors I liked and URLs of websites I admired, and he went to it. A couple of months later, after much back-and-forth, the site went live. Now more than a year later, I’m still happy with it and don’t regret for a minute that I didn’t do it myself.

Other authors feel the same. Says author Catherine Wald (writerwald.com): “Although I have a good sense of design and had a good idea of what I wanted the site to look like and convey, I knew I wanted a pro to design it. Once you put your website up, it’s there for all to see. I’m pleased with the results and think it was worth the money.”

If you’re going to hire a designer, check her out thoroughly. “Make sure you like the designer’s style, architecturally and navigationally,” Mosso says. “Also, if you hope to maintain and update your site yourself, make sure you discuss this with the designer.” You want a designer who’s open to your ideas but also has some of his own.

With all the people designing websites these days, prices have come way down. It can actually be downright cheap, especially if you track one down at your local college or university, or find a designer just starting out.

Author Kristin Ohlson (kristinohlson.com) says: “A friend was just getting into the Web design business and offered me a sweet deal. He’d done a few websites for businesses and wanted to create a more artistic one. Now I’m in his portfolio.”

You don’t necessarily need an experienced designer to create a great website. Author T.C. Boyle’s fabulous site (tcboyle.com) was designed by his son, a high school sophomore at the time.

Doing it yourself More and more, writers use programs such as Dreamweaver, Microsoft’s FrontPage and Microsoft Publisher to create their own websites. Members of The Authors Guild have used templates available through the Guild to create their own sites, as well.

Author Claire Tristram studied writers’ sites for ideas and ended up designing her own because, this way, she thought she’d have more control over her site. “The first thing I did was register my site address,” Tristram says, “using the standard format for author websites: clairetristram.com. Then I bought an Adobe program to help me design the site, because learning HTML seemed a little excessive for my needs. I looked at a ton of writers’ websites for ideas. I stole my color scheme (blood red background with white letters) from [an older version of] Scott Turow[‘s website]. I liked the way Jonathan Franzen used pictures and text and did the same on my site.” Because she felt the best sites managed to put the most relevant information in a small-enough space to fit on a typical monitor screen without scrolling, she emulated that, too. “A few pages still demand a scroll-down but only for people who are really curious; the most recent and most relevant information is all contained in a monitor-friendly space.”

A website’s parts

Whether you’re doing it yourself or hiring someone, you need to know what categories, or subpages, you’ll need. Not all writers’ sites will include the same ones. A magazine writer’s website will differ from an author’s site, for instance. And even a nonfiction author’s site will differ from a novelist’s site. It goes back to who your audience is and the sort of information you need to put forth.

If you’re looking to get writing assignments from magazine editors, your site may simply include your photo on the home page with a basic intro, then link to subpages for your bio, article clips and contact information. Freelancer Sam Greengard (greengard.com) made his own site with these few categories and calls it “a modern-day brochure.” He’s had no trouble maintaining a very lucrative living this way.

Book authors typically have more complex sites. O n my site, the home page has a lot going on: My editor said to make it easy for a visitor to the site to find what she needs from the home page. So on went a photo of me and the cover of my book. There are links to listen to an excerpt of my book, read a chapter from it and order it from an online bookstore. There are also a few reviews, plus links to more reviews. There’s a link to my radio-show Web page and upcoming events. Along the top run the following tabs: “Bio,” “Writings,” “Appearances,” “Blog,” “Message Board,” “Press,” “Classes” and “Contact.”

Eight million U.S. adults have online journals (called blogs) and—especially if you’re not yet published—it may be the best way to go, in terms of establishing a Web presence. A blog also is good bait to get people to return to your website, because, by its very nature, it needs to be updated regularly. I started a blog (penonfire.blogspot.com) that links to my website, at the suggestion of my Harcourt editor. You can get a free blog at typepad.com, blogger.com and squarespace.com.

Some authors’ websites offer a glimpse of the writer’s private life or offer tangential information. The website of author Jo-Ann Mapson (joannmapson.com) features photos of her pets. Mystery author Lisa Scottoline (scottoline.com) has a lot about being Italian, as well as recipes. T. Jefferson Parker (tjeffersonparker.com) features a scrapbook on his site with photos from author events. Sandra Gurvis (sgurvis.com) features photos from the 1960s. It’s up to you whether you want to include this kind of information—but remember the goals of your site first and foremost and decide whether tangential, personal information will further that goal or simply clutter your site.

Update often

Once you have a website, don’t allow it to drift into the dead zone. There are certain things you can keep up for a long time: impressive clips, excerpts from your book, reviews. But when something is no longer current—a speaking schedule, for instance—update it immediately.

“Changing content has a way of making people return,” Schulz says. “It can be a way to entice people to come back and stay involved.”

If you hire someone to do your site, make sure you’ll be able to update it yourself. The last thing you want is to have to pay your Web designer to update it for you, so get that straight upfront and have her show you how to do the updates once the job’s done.

Designer Bradley Charbonneau (likoma.com/drupal/design) agrees. “My big selling point is that I give the writers the control to add/edit/delete most all of the content on their site without having to ask (and pay!) me all the time,” he says. “They don’t have to learn HTML, download software or know much more than how to copy and paste.”

Reserve your domain name

I already had a domain name for my radio-show website (writersonwriting.com), which I still have, but I needed two more: one for my book (penonfire.com) and one for me (barbarademarcobarrett.com). All three URLs lead to one main site. It’s an investment, but a necessary one—and a tax write-off. It makes sense to have your book title as a domain name, but it also makes sense to register your name, because when your book is old news, well, you’ll still be you. Also, this way, no matter how people look for you in search engines, they’ll be able to find you. Even if you have no immediate plans to create a website, it makes sense to reserve, and pay for, your domain name now. You pay for a domain host by the month, and the cost is about $30 per year. Two I’ve used are godaddy.com and registernames.com.

Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) may offer free or low-cost space to park your space; just make sure it’s enough for your own use. If you need more, Web hosts charge about $10 a month for a ton of space. To start looking for one, enter the words “Web domain” and “Web hosts” into your favorite search engine and you’ll come up with more possibilities than you need. Or check with your friends to see what they use.

Final thoughts

Keep the bells and whistles on your site to a minimum; they slow downloading time, and it’s much more important for your site to be clean and informative than flashy. When deciding what kind of content to include, remember that you want to give some information away for free—but not too much. You’ll keep readers coming back if the content keeps changing or there’s some added benefit for them to return (like that witty, riveting blog you’re going to start).

You have all the tools now, so don’t waste another minute. The Web, and your readers, are waiting.

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